Inside the Multi-Million Dollar Makeover of The Clare

Chicago’s The Clare became a highly visible symbol of hard times facing the senior housing industry when it defaulted on municipal bonds in 2011. At the time, the 53-story continuing care retirement community occupying premium downtown real estate had outstanding debt of $216.5 million, making its default the year’s largest.

Although it lays claim to one of the most coveted real estate plots in Chicago’s Gold Coast, an exclusive Windy City ZIP code, The Clare was forced into bankruptcy.

But in recent years, under new ownership, The Clare has started to turn things around. And now, with occupancy on the rise, it is undertaking a dramatic renovation to meet evolving market demands.

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“It was about a year ago we started having serious conversations about renovating the common spaces,” Executive Director Kyle Exline tells SHN. “In the last two-plus years, our velocity of move-ins, sales and occupancy have continued to rise. Visualizing what our building will look like at 90%, 95%, 100% occupied, our motivation was to act now to be prepared.”

Currently, the 326-unit community is at 71% occupancy and climbing, Exline says.* There are 245 independent living units, of which 155 are sold. The Clare also has assisted living floors with additional services including memory support, skilled nursing, respite care and rehabilitation, known as The Terraces.

The latest renovation project will be internally financed and run to the “multi-millions of dollars,” according to Exline, although he did not disclose the exact sum.

In terms of the project goals, one main objective is to further enhance dining. This is an aspect of The Clare that has proven highly popular with residents and a major selling point, Exline says.

At 53 stories tall, The Clare always has been renowned for its high-rise version of senior housing, and perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the renovation is how it will transform the top floor from its current incarnation as an all-purpose space to a high-end dining environment.

The idea is to pair the panoramic views of Chicago with equally impressive food, Exline explains. With a new kitchen on that level, the community’s executive chef, Hagop Hagopian, will concoct high-end menus. A single week’s fare might run the gamut from tapas paired with specialty drinks to rustic Italian to Japanese, Exline says.

Renovations on the building’s 9th floor will also be dining focused. What currently is a bistro of roughly 20 seats will be expanded to 60 seats (pictured), and a full-service kitchen also will be added. While the bistro will offer homestyle, American pub-style offerings in an environment with a host and servers, there also will be a grab-and-go option with pre-made soups, salads and entrees.

As the bistro is expanded on the 9th floor, other amenities currently on that level will be relocated to the ground floor, in an effort to create a one-stop experience for residents.

Currently, with the mailroom on the 9th floor and the concierge on the 17th, residents might have to make several stops each day. After the renovation, these amenities will all be located on the ground level, so that as the building’s residents come and go during the day, they easily can pick up their parcels and stop by the concierge to make reservations, get tickets, or take care of other needs.

As the ground floor remodel suggests, the renovations are keyed toward active, independent living residents who value options and convenience. And there’s good reason for that: It’s based on market demands The Clare is seeing.

“What we’re seeing in our general marketplace is that there’s less and less demand for traditional assisted living environments,” Exline says. “In some cases it makes a lot of sense, but we’re seeing residents preferring to bring AL services into their IL home.”

Yet, there’s another side to this coin: Increasing demand for skilled nursing, particularly short-term rehabilitation. This latest renovation is following hard on the heels of another project at The Clare, which saw 16 assisted living beds converted to skilled nursing.

That repositioning was completed in March, and the additional 16 beds were filled in less than 30 days, according to Exline.

The high demand for these beds—The Clare now has 48 skilled nursing beds total—comes both from existing residents who undergo procedures such as hip replacements, as well as from people in the larger Chicago community, Exline says.

When it first opened nearly eight years ago, The Clare was a victim of bad timing. The economy cratered shortly after, making its $500,000-plus entrance fees far too high as seniors’ financial resources dried up.

Now, its current leadership is encouraged but is careful not to get ahead of itself—it is striving to meet the market where it’s at and anticipate where it’s going.

“We’re not adding space that drives revenue [by increasing the number of potential total occupants], we’re remodeling common area spaces to be more convenient to our residents,” Exline says. “We’ve seen the clientele has changed, the demand for dining programs continues to change. Our dining program certainly exceeds expectations today, but this [remodel] is to ensure we’re evolving with our demographic.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

*Editor’s Note: This story originally stated that occupancy is at 60% and climbing. That rate is for the independent living units only.

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